How does banter impact women in the workplace?

Written by
Kate Cooper

29 Jun 2018

29 Jun 2018 • by Kate Cooper

With research showing that women are twice as likely as men to be negatively affected by workplace banter, Kate Cooper, head of research, policy & standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management, discusses the implications for leaders.

What is the role, use and impact of workplace banter, and what renders it positive or negative; appropriate or inappropriate? These were the themes of a study published in June by the Institute of Leadership & Management, entitled Banter: Just a bit of fun or crossing the line?

Our findings show that these everyday, informal, off-the-cuff remarks add to the social cohesion between colleagues and are considered an important part of our workplace culture, contributing to team spirit. Almost no one would ban banter, according to the study, with only 5% of our respondents saying there is no place for it in the workplace.

However, when it stops being fun and makes people feel uncomfortable or embarrassed it can have a damaging effect on performance, confidence and mental health - particularly for women.

Impact on women

In our survey, 20% of women said they felt less confident as a result of negative banter in the workplace, compared with only 10% of men; and while 10% of female respondents said that banter had a negative impact on their mental health, this was reported by just 3% of male respondents.

This impact on confidence reported by women reveals how organisational culture could undermine progress in terms of improving gender representation on executive teams, despite a compelling business case: a report by McKinsey (2018) showed that companies in the top quarter for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. However, there had only been a 2% growth (to 14%) since the same research was carried out two years previously.

Only last week, a UK government report highlighted the top 10 poorest explanations given by FTSE 350 executives for failing to appoint more women to their boards. The list of laughable excuses (including ‘they don’t fit in’ and ‘all the good ones have already gone’) was compiled by the team behind the landmark Hampton Alexander Review into increasing the number of women in senior positions in FTSE 350 companies, and offers another insight into women’s experience in the workplace.

Leaders should consider whether men's and women’s different responses to workplace banter could be one of the many factors impacting their ability to progress to the most senior levels. A culture that doesn’t fit comfortably with women might well inhibit ambition and progression.

Implications for leaders

Getting the banter balance right is tough. It’s important that leaders recognise the serious impact it can have and create a culture where banter is kept within appropriate boundaries. Almost three-quarters of our survey respondents were either unaware whether a banter policy existed within their organisation or knew that their company didn’t have one. A proactive approach to creating a culture of inclusivity requires clear policies and training for everyone, and should begin at induction and onboarding.  

Creating environments where everyone feels able to speak up and challenge inappropriate behaviour – and knows that they will be heard – is an important element in attracting and retaining talent in a competitive global marketplace: an ongoing challenge for all of us.